What Is Imago Therapy?

Couple on doing Imago relationship therapy with a therapist
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What Is Imago Therapy?

Imago therapy or Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) is a specific style of relationship therapy designed to help conflict within relationships become opportunities for healing and growth. The term imago is Latin for "image," and within the context of IRT, it refers to an "unconscious image of familiar love."

Imago Relationship Therapy was developed by Harville Hendrix, PhD and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD. In the late 1970s, both clinicians had experienced divorce in their relationship history. After looking for effective and evidence-based support for understanding relationship dynamics, they found very little in the way of helpful resources.

As a result, they chose to build from their own experiences to research and develop an evidence-based model of counseling that would help facilitate healing and growth in committed relationships.

Types of Imago Therapy

There are two ways that Imago therapy may be used. While primarily used within the context of committed relationships, it may also be utilized in individual therapy.

Imago Therapy for Relationships

The concept of Imago as an image of familiar love suggests that your early relationships teach you something about love and about yourself. Through these early experiences, you develop a sense of an identity related to love, such as what love is and what you need to do in order to experience love from others and feel safe.

In your early relationships, you start to develop a sense of self-worth based on how you are treated by important people in your life. You start to develop attachment patterns and gain a sense of how you think you should be treated by others.

For example, if growing up you only received praise and feelings of love from your caregivers when you performed well at a task, you may move into your adult life believing that you must perform well in order to be worthy of love and to receive care and comfort from your partner.

If your partner turns away or shuts down on you, leaving you feeling unloved, you might quickly start to reflect on your own behaviors, replaying things and looking for what you may have "done something wrong" for the person to treat you this way.

Our intimate relationships are prime ground for bringing up raw spots, old wounds, and patterned behaviors. These connections can leave us feeling close and cared for or lonely and abandoned. It is not surprising that our intimate relationships often tend to bring up old, familiar emotional wounds since Imago therapy suggests that you pick partners who feel "familiar" to you.

When these old wounds come up in relationships, however, IRT holds that they can give us a chance to heal and grow. As Dr. Hendrix stated in his best-selling book "Getting the Love You Want," "We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we can be healed in relationship."

Imago for Individuals

Although Imago relationship therapy is a model of counseling designed to effectively work with couples in committed relationships, you certainly do not need to be in an active relationship to benefit from Imago therapy. In fact, many people who are dating may find this type of therapy very useful for examining their own history and how it might be influencing their dating patterns and choices in partners.

By participating in Imago therapy by yourself, you can learn about some of your old wounds or emotional raw spots that might be impacting your relationships. Finding a sense of healing around these raw spots can be valuable in helping you move forward with more confidence and learning how to be a great, compassionate partner in your next relationship.

Techniques

One core aspect of Imago Relationship Therapy is the Imago dialogue. This dialogue is a structured method, facilitated by a trained Imago therapist, which allows partners to gain understanding and increase empathy. The goals of Imago dialogue are to:

  • Remove negative, hurtful language from communication
  • Create a safe emotional environment for both partners to openly share
  • Allow both partners equal space and eliminate the idea that one partner has more power over the other

Within this dialogue there is a "sender" and a "receiver," the sender being the one to share thoughts and feelings openly with their receiver. The "receiver" practices the following three steps during the Imago dialogue:

  1. Mirroring: Repeating back what you have heard your partner say in order to gain clarification and understanding. The receiver does this with no judgment, criticism, or response, but simply repeating back what they have heard their partner say. For example, the receiver might say, "So what I'm hearing you say is..." and then follow by paraphrasing the sender's original words.
  2. Validation: The receiver works to validate parts of what their partner (the sender) has shared, what makes sense to them. As they are doing this, they are letting their partner know that they "get it" and are actively trying to understand. If there are parts that the receiver does not yet understand, they can ask the sender to share more. For example, the receiver might say something like, "I can understand how that would make you feel that way."
  3. Empathy: At this point in the dialogue, the receiver shares with their partner what they think the other might be feeling. Sharing on this level is a way to let their partner know they are gaining a deeper understanding of their emotional experience, allowing the partner to feel seen and heard. For example, the receiver might say something such as, "I imagine you must be feeling disappointed."

Many of these are also common techniques used in couples therapy as a way of improving communication, which is one of the primary goals of relationship therapy.

What Imago Therapy Can Help With

Imago therapy was developed specifically for the understanding and healing of relationships. Some of the issues that Imago therapy can help with include:

You do not have to necessarily be in distress to participate in Imago Relationship Therapy. In fact, couples who are not in distress can significantly benefit from participating, learning about these dynamics within the relationship, and gaining a better understanding of themselves and their partner.

Who Can It Help?

Those in committed relationships with a significant other would be excellent candidates to benefit from Imago therapy.

  • Couples at all stages and seasons of their relationship are encouraged to participate, from dating and premarital couples to those who have been together for many years.
  • Individuals can also participate in imago relationship therapy.
  • People who are dating can certainly benefit from learning about their relationship patterns, choices of partners, and how to find and connect with someone who is a safe person and a healthy partner.

Benefits of Imago Therapy

Imago Relationship Therapy offers a number of key benefits that may make it a good choice for couples that are facing problems.

Understanding Early Attachments

Although these concepts are utilized in different types of dynamic psychotherapy, Imago therapy emphasizes that your early attachment experiences with caregivers may directly influence your choice of partner as an adult. As you date, you may come across someone who seems all too familiar and easy to connect with, almost as if you have known them before or for a long time.

What Imago therapy suggests is that these people feel familiar because they parallel relationship dynamics you have been in before with caregivers in your early life experiences. When you feel comfortable and familiar with someone, you begin to let your guard down and grow closer, which makes it easier to build a romantic relationship.

As you become closer to a romantic partner, you may find old emotional wounds surfacing within your relationship and wonder what is happening.

Conflict as an Opportunity for Growth

Another thing that makes Imago therapy different from other styles of therapy is that it is focused on using conflict and distress and opportunities for healing and growth. Rather than teaching people how to simply "fight better" or find ways to avoid conflict within your relationship, Imago therapy encourages couples to lean into those moments of distress and use them for exploration, curiosity, and learning.

Collaborative Approach to Treatment

Imago therapy is collaborative, meaning that there is not a distinct role of a therapist as an advice-giving authority but, rather, the therapist works together with the couple to take a look at what is happening for them and healing the relationship as a whole. The therapist allows for the couple to be the experts of their dynamic, facilitating the conversation in a way that allows partners to learn from each other.

Effectiveness

Because this therapeutic approach is relatively new, there is not a great deal of scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness. However, there are some studies that have explored the efficacy of Imago therapy.

  • One small 2011 study found that people who participated in Imago therapy saw improvements in self-awareness and gained a better understanding of their own and their partner's childhood experiences. Couples were able to also achieve better communication with one another.
  • A 2017 study published in The Family Journal found that Imago therapy helped improve empathy levels in relationships. Empathy plays an important role in the satisfaction people feel with their partner, so increasing empathy may contribute to positive changes in a relationship.
  • Another study published in 2017 found that 12 weeks of Imago therapy was linked to improvements in relationship satisfaction.

It is important to note that these studies involve small samples, so researchers have not determined if the results can be generalized to the population at large. Further research is needed to determine the effectiveness of Imago therapy.

Things to Consider

As with other types of relationship therapy, there are times when Imago therapy might not be a good fit for your relationship. These times might include situations such as domestic violence, active substance abuse, or other addictive behaviors that can get in the way of a successful relationship therapy experience. Imago therapy may only be effective when issues like this are resolved first. 

People who dislike structure may also find the Imago dialogue overly restrictive and unnatural. It may also not be the best choice if you aren't sure that you want to preserve the relationship in the first place.

How to Get Started

Two main ways to start learning more about Imago therapy and how it can help your relationship include workshops and therapy sessions. There are several varied workshops available, all based on the model of Imago therapy. Some of the workshops available are tailored specifically to:

  • Premarital couples
  • Couples in distress
  • Couples with children
  • Christian couples
  • Same-sex couples
  • Individuals

Workshops are offered around the world and it is likely that there are workshops available in your area or region.

The other method of participation is in counseling with an Imago-trained therapist. Sessions are traditionally offered one hour at a time, although there are often additional services available such as intensives that last a few hours or retreats that might last for a few days.

Having face-to-face time with an Imago-trained therapist allows you and your partner to actively dig into the dynamics of your relationship. During that time you will be using dialogue, facilitated by the therapist, to explore and learn what happens for your partner when there is distress or conflict in the relationship.

Actively seeking understanding can increase empathy and create a sense of connection and healing between partners so the same patterns and issues stop coming up time and time again.

How Can I Find an Imago Therapist?

Many therapists who work with couples have likely had some training in—and basic understanding of—Imago Relationship Therapy. You can find resources in your area, such as trained and even fully certified Imago relationship therapists, at sites such as Imago Relationships International.

There you can search a database of trained Imago therapists from around the world, searching by your location and type of relationship need. You can also discover locations for a variety of workshops available, which are based on the principles of Imago Relationship Therapy.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Schmidt CD, Gelhert NC. Couples therapy and empathy: An evaluation of the impact of imago relationship therapy on partner empathy levels. The Family Journal. 2017;25(1):23-30. doi:10.1177/1066480716678621

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